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Tom Danaher, veteran World War II pilot, dies at age 90

Posted at 10:06 AM, Sep 12, 2014

Tom Danaher, a pilot of extraordinary skills in war and peace and a man of humility and respect among family, friends and aviation peers, died peacefully at his Wichita Falls home early Friday morning. He was 90.

Danaher served as a Marine Corps combat pilot in two wars and was a tribute to what is commonly known as “America’s Greatest Generation.” He was born May 2, 1924 in Little Rock, Ark., and moved to Wichita Falls after graduating from high school in Dallas. His services are pending.

B.J. Danaher, Tom’s niece, has been in the city looking after her uncle during his stay in Hospice Wichita Falls care. Danaher is survived by a host of nieces and nephews, but B. J. has remained among the closest.

“Uncle Tom taught me so much about life, but more than anything was the inspiration he gave me to become a pilot,” she said. “On the day I took my first solo flight, I landed and there he was, waving and giving me a thumb up. He gave me a big hug and smile. I’ll never forget that day. I think of him every time I fly.”

Danaher carved a valued legacy among American pilots who flew combat missions in wartime. He spanned oceans in small aircraft and worked in more than two dozen movies for directors like Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack. Through it all, Danaher never veered from a modest nature that only drew him more acclaim.

In 1988, at age 64, he was inducted into “The Living Legends of Aviation” during a banquet in Los Angeles. The unassuming Wichita Falls pilot sat at a banquet table and scrolled the list of names that surrounded his.

There was Chuck Yeager, Buzz Aldrin, Frank Borman, Neil Armstrong and others ranging from space explorers to decorated pilots of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Tom saw his name in one of three long columns and the first thing that came to his mind was, “This can’t be right.” He never considered himself a hero or anything special and generally summed up his life as, “Someone who just happed to be in certain places at certain times.”

Not altogether true said Reese Inman, a Wichitan who followed Danaher around like a puppy dog since he was about four-years-old. “Tom was special and a remarkable pilot,” Inman said. “He just never liked to talk about himself which actually made him even more exceptional. As a wartime pilot, he was one of our finest. As a civilian pilot he crossed oceans, climbed above mountains and was called on time again to fly in scenes in major motion pictures. He was like a father to me and I will miss our times together.”

Danaher entered World War II as a Marine Corps fighter pilot in 1942 and became an ace in the Grumman F6F Hellcat night fighter during the war. In 1945 he shot down three Japanese bombers in the final weeks of the aerial combat. He never cared to talk about the total number of enemy aircraft he downed during World War II.

He was recalled to active duty in 1951 during the Korean War. In 1953 he flew fighter escort on the last combat mission of the B-29s high altitude bombing strikes over Pyongyang, North Korea. He would fly countless missions during his 27 months in Korea.

At the end of his tour of duty in ’54, Tom flew his 1948, 185 HP Bonanza with a specially crafted gasoline tanks transatlantic to England to see RAF friends he’d met in Korea. Once asked how many Atlantic Ocean crossings he’d made in his life, Danaher, who didn’t keep a logbook, stopped counting at 100.

“Tom and I became friends in the early 1970s through our mutual love of aviation,” said Mac McGregor. “Among the things that impressed me was his ability to stay calm under adverse conditions. He never panicked. He made good decisions and this is why his flying record was so clean and without incident.”

In n some of the most spectacular aerial footage ever filmed, the Wichitan was a star in flying scenes in “Out of Africa” and “Empire of the Sun.” He sat in cockpits for Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson and Pierce Brosnan. He shared sets with Christian Bale, John Makovick, James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Sophia Loren and Meryl Streep.

“Empire of the Sun” was not the box office hit it was predicted to be but it is considered one of the finest films of aerial photography ever made. Those who love flight tend to relive scenes from this movie. Tom got to know Bale who played the role of a young boy interned in a Japanese POW camp. Bale was superb and Tom often said, “He should have won something for that role. He was great.”

Through the years Danaher lived his life as it came, staying close to friends, never planning ahead and never locked in the past. “I didn’t want a legacy or anything like that,” he said. “I never considered myself as anything special.”

Tom Danaher’s life spanned the realm of a humble man with the gift of flight and service to his country. Anyway you define it; this is a characterization of a legacy.